Sunday, 7 September 2014


The archives are shut today, so time for some swimming and some reflection...
View towards Dubrovnik from the island of Lokrum

One of the biggest challenges in working on slavery is attempting to arrive at a definition.

The Oxford English Dictionary offers the following definition : 'One who is the property of, and entirely subject to, another person, whether by capture, purchase, or birth; a servant completely divested of freedom and personal rights.'

'In 1926, the slavery convention defined slavery as ‘the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised’. In 1930, the definition was expanded to include all those obliged to do forced or compulsory labour, defined as ‘all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily'.

One of the big debates concerning slavery in Dubrovnik, with which I am grappling, lies in the distinction between slavery and indentured labour, and the point at which a transition was made between the two– I hope to have more to say about this in due course. It’s clear that a flooded labour market would reduce the need for slavery and turn it into the more expensive option; and that a form of labour which involved selling one’s services for a set number of years would be far more appealing to owners/ employers, who would therefore be able to shed responsibility for slaves in their old age and could profit with no drawbacks from the most productive years of a person’s life. It had the added advantages of appeasing late medieval consciences, aware that slavery was against the teaching of the Church. It’s an important distinction, and I shall be looking at the legal implications, as well as the ways in which this tied into increasingly problematising moral statements on the subject of slavery. But I don’t want to lose sight of the essential enslavement of these people in either case. And I suspect that this might be an area in which legalism can serve to obfuscate the total abnegation of human rights.

The point was recently brought home particularly forcefully by the shooting in Greece of 28 immigrant strawberry pickers, who had the apparent temerity to demand their wages for the past six months. Whether or not, these people were formally the property of their employers in many ways seems irrelevant when they were refused pay, forced to live in squalid conditions, and obliged, by physical force, to continue working.

Orlando Patterson in his Slavery and Social Death defines slavery as ‘the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons’. He describes the legal qualities of as an idiom rather than an essential characteristic of slavery. I’m not sure that legalism, honour, violence etc can be so easily separated – but there is a very important point here.

Whilst the United Nations now clearly points to the multiple forms of enslavement, we’re all too ready, as a public, to turn a blind eye and allow the kind of obfuscations which continue to provide cheap produce without troubling our consciences.

There is a useful article here.

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